“Christian anarchism holds the view that, properly understood, what Jesus calls us to in the political sphere is some form of anarchism.” - Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Author of Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel
As much of our audience knows, The Firebrand was the original title of Free Society, one of the first anarchist journals in the United States. While this publication doesn’t feel deserving of the ‘anarchist’ title, which was once an extraordinarily courageous title to bear, our values and commitments are directly inspired by Free Society’s tradition.
Our dedication to these values is rooted in the tenets of European libertarianism and classical liberalism, which is a political philosophy that simply cannot be compartmentalized. Anarchism, which is also inspired by these philosophies, has several different strands, many of which strongly align with various political ideologies.
Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel by Alexandre Christoyannopoulos thoroughly explores the connections between anarchism and Christianity. Dr. Christoyannopoulos considers this radical connection to really not be so radical, arguing that the idea behind Christian anarchism is that anarchist politics are a natural extension of Christianity.
In an effort to further understand Dr. Christoyannopoulos’ thesis, I interviewed him in such a way that ended up requiring two posts (the second part of this interview can be found here).
Dr. Christoyannopoulos, thank you so much for making time for this interview.
In your book, you make a strong case that Jesus and Christian anarchists such as Tolstoy and Dorothy Day were generally opposed to the State as an institution. You cite countless New Testament passages, perhaps most notably the Sermon on the Mount, which support this. However, many other institutions, which arguably operate in more tyrannical ways than the modern state, have assumed positions of power in the new global economy. Do you believe that the teachings of Jesus render these private institutions as illegitimate as well?
Thank you for inviting me! This is a good question, but I need to make a couple of introductory remarks before I can reach an answer. Firstly, the Christian anarchists whose writings I present in my book argue that Jesus’ teaching implies for us today a fairly clear denunciation of the state, but they often don’t discuss in much depth private institutions like multinational corporations and suchlike. One obvious reason for this is that whilst Jesus did have to position himself with respect to the political and religious authorities of his day, there were in his times nothing really resembling those global private institutions which you mention. Several Christian anarchists (e.g. Tolstoy) also lived before the spread of these corporations (at least in their 20th century embodiment). So if these private institutions are not discussed in my book, it’s mainly because the Christian anarchists I studied don’t discuss them much themselves.
Secondly, before we turn to what the teachings of Jesus might imply about your question, it might help to remind ourselves of these institutions’ purpose and setup. All big multinationals borrow money on the stock market. Structurally, they are therefore owned by shareholders who in most cases demand significant dividends. Hardly any major private corporation genuinely prioritises other goals such as improvement in their workers’ conditions, environmentally sustainable business or the well-being of the local economies they are involved in. Most will of course deploy their full marketing arsenal to deny this and claim they invest in people, in a green world etc, but their first and by far most important priority remains their bottom line, and usually therefore their growth, their profits and so on. When push comes to shove, their ‘masters’ are their shareholders, and these want a hefty return on their investment. What they are dedicated to, therefore, is their shareholders’ profits, and by extension their own growth and profit margins.
The Gospels don’t say much about such beasts directly. However, these corporations do come pretty close to Mammon-worship – or at least they submit to the will of Mammon/money-worshippers. They don’t make it their goal to spread love or justice. When pressed, their high-flying employees might appease their conscience by rehearsing arguments about how selfishness and greed are actually drivers of a better society for all. But the behaviour these institutions promote is far from what Jesus asked his followers to exemplify. What we human beings do to one another through these isn’t the sort of love, care and forgiveness for one another that Jesus taught and embodied. Just as with the state, the way these institutions frame our relations to one another is corrosive, sometimes truly inhumane, and at odds with the Gospels – on top of effectively threatening the very survival of the human species and habitat.
Many anarchists today claim that 18th and 19th century anarchists only opposed the state and the church because no other dominant institutions existed. If they saw the hierarchical structures of today, such as corporations, they would generally support the state until the elements of private power ceased to exist. What exactly would the ‘order of operations’ be according to the majority of Christian Anarchists, in your view?
The Catholic Workers have an illustrated t-shirt which says, at the front: ‘comforting the afflicted’, and at the back: ‘afflicting the comfortable’. It seems to me that these are basically the priorities. In a sense, the state, the church, corporations and so on are only to be considered when their interference makes such things harder. The Christian anarchists I’ve come across dedicate themselves to ‘comforting the afflicted’ (for instance providing food, shelter and company to the outcast, exemplifying a different way of relating to one another, and so on) as well as ‘afflicting the comfortable’ (protesting about war, economic injustice and so on). The way that they confront states, churches and private corporations as a result depends on the precise issue they’re engaged with.
It’s perhaps worth adding that these different institutions are not always very clearly separable on any particular topic. When protesting about the ongoing war in Iraq, for example, you’re obviously being critical of the state’s involvement there, but let’s not forget the private corporations reaping billions out of the glorious war effort, or the religious or ideological fan clubs who invest so much in convincing us all that it’s a good or Christian or necessary war. Or take the Royal Wedding here a few weeks back: can you really separate the state element (the future King, an emotional PM singing along) from the ecclesiastical (holy matrimony, the astounding reciting of the Lord’s Prayer by the assembly), economic (I wonder how much the accumulated clothes and hats worn in that abbey are worth) or military (the prince’s attire, the jets flying past)? Or take the walls we have erected around our borders: aren’t political, economic, religious and other institutions and arguments again all involved in protecting the haves from the have-nots?
Maybe, therefore, it’s not necessarily a question of ‘order of operations’, but it’s about doing what we can to improve the human lot and denouncing whichever obstacle, institution or mentality through which we lose sight of the ‘Golden Rule’ (‘don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want others to do to you’) – whether these are states, churches, corporations or others.
It’s perhaps worth adding, in response to part of your question, that those on the Left who see the state as one of few powerful allies in the defence of workers’ rights, social and environmental justice and so on do (I think) have a point. At least in some countries, legislation has moderated the otherwise much worse impact which the free reign of private corporations would lead to. But first of all, notice how precisely these ‘successes’ are being ever more eroded by the onward march of global capitalism anyway: state by state, gradually or violently, the ‘Washington consensus’ has since the 1970s and 80s been dismantling these protections and retooling the state apparatus to crush the skulls of those outraged by such developments. In other words, the state does not seem to be that successful in protecting us from the expanding power of private corporations.
Moreover and at the risk of venturing onto a potentially slippery argument, it might even be acceptable to sometimes see the ‘state’ as expressing the will of the broader public. As many anarchists point out, the state usually fails to do this (despite pretending to do so) and ends up protecting specific interests which clash against those of the broader public. But sometimes (often as a result of sustained democratic campaigns and resistance), the state machinery has made ‘progressive’ concessions that are worth standing by. This need not be uncomfortable or puzzling to anarchists. In a decentralised, bottom-up political world, some political forums would probably still be required at national and international levels. The decision-making methods and the revocability of any delegates would be very different (bottom-up), and the aim would be that these forums express the true will and interests of all those concerned. States today rarely get this right, but sometimes, some can come close to expressing more truly democratic preferences (despite, rather than thanks to, the state’s modus operandi). That need not diminish the fundamental distrust anarchists have of the state, but to at least recognise that the state can sometimes flirt with expressing more truly democratic interests might allow for more constructive dialogues and alliances across the various strands of the Left.
In any case and to come back to your question, I don’t think Christian anarchists would dispute your diagnosis. Private power is a serious source of injustice which does need addressing. As to which ‘institutions’ should be first, they’re so intermeshed anyway that I’m not sure a clear and final ‘order’ can be provided – at least, it’ll probably depend on the specific issue in hand.
If you were to compare the Spanish revolution (which is considered an anarcho-syndicalist movement) and the recent revolutions in the Middle East, which one would be perceived more favorably in the eyes of the Christian anarchists?
That’s a difficult question. Both revolutions were about seeking a better world, but in neither have a majority of their movers been seeking to somehow ‘follow God’ or live out Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for example. The Spanish revolution was also very anti-clerical and at times even anti-Christian – in no small part of course because ‘Christianity’ in that context typically meant the very church which colluded with the landowners and the military. As to the ‘Arab spring’, several commentators have already noted that one interesting aspect of it is that the movements that fed it often bypassed clerics altogether. Both revolutions have exhibited encouraging acts of defiance against economic, political, military and sometimes also religious oppression. But their contexts have also been very different: one was a dress-rehearsal for world war, an act of resistance against fascism and authoritarianism, and an attempt to actually create a new society in the shell of the old; the other is an act of resistance to today’s Western-led ‘empire’ and to its corrupt local dictators. Then again, both were led by people willing to sacrifice their lives for the improvement of their and their neighbour’s conditions.
Which one would be considered most favourably by Christian anarchists? One would have to ask them directly. I suspect they’d in most cases see and approve of elements of hope in both whilst expressing reservations about some of their other aspects. Either way, none has been spearheaded by people committed to a religious ethic of the type advocated by Jesus (i.e. a Christian anarchist ethic). Religious voices if anything (and unfortunately) have apparently tended to be either neutral or reactionary – though I’m sure there are significant and interesting exceptions. In any case, both provide ample demonstration that collectively, human beings can create the conditions for a different world. The path is full of traps and difficulties, but it seems to me that these revolutions suggest that a new society can indeed be built in the shell of the old.
Despite the former being ‘anarchist’, but more violent, and the latter not ‘anarchist’, but peaceful, would that principle have an influence on the Christian anarchists?
Tolstoy would certainly be very critical of any adoption of violence, even if he would probably concede that he understands why people might resort to it. He said he agreed with anarchists in pretty much everything except the belief that violence can help bring about the necessary revolution, therefore that thinking of his would feed into his commentary on these two cases. So, for Tolstoy to support any revolution, it would have to be a peaceful one. I think most Christian anarchists would basically agree with him.
As to ‘anarchism’, I’m not sure as many Christian anarchists would be as strict about it as they might be about peacefulness or non-violence (even in resistance). They tend to be stricter on the non-violence bit than the anarchist bit, in part because one of the things that makes them anarchists in the first place is precisely their denunciation of state violence. That is, many Christian anarchists are anarchists precisely because they are pacifist ‘fundamentalists’, so to speak.
Then again, Christian anarchists are quite acutely aware of the dangers of reliance on top-down politics, and many prefer more participatory and syndicalist decision-making. This would imply a preference for the more ‘anarchist’ and less ‘peaceful’ Spanish revolution over the more recent ones in the Middle East, because the latter (perhaps with the ironic and fragile exception of Eastern Libya) have ended up looking towards the top-down state (with different pilots at its helm) to further the work of the ‘revolutions’.
Either way, it’s difficult to put words in people’s mouths. But you’re right, it seems to me, in separating out the ‘peaceful’ and ‘anarchist’ elements: I suspect Christian anarchists would do so too in casting their critical eye on these revolutions and articulating their (probably ambivalent) judgement on them.
(This is part one of William Shaub’s interview with Alexandre Christoyannopoulos. For part two, click here.)
For more information on Alexandre Christoyannopoulos and his book, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel, visit his official website.